Robert Farnon: Genius and Humility
ROBERT FARNON: GENIUS AND HUMILITY
A CANADIAN PERSPECTIVE
DR. STANLEY SAUNDERS
It is difficult to think of a time when the music of Robert Farnon was not a part of my life. As an aspiring teenage violinist in Britain, I had the good fortune to mature with the opportunity to listen to Robert’s music emanating from so many sources in an environment and time that were conducive to the performance of live music.
Radio gave us his great arrangements with the big dance bands of Ted Heath, Ambrose, and Geraldo; the series "Melody Hour," which began in 1946; and Robert’s BBC programme "Journey into Melody." from 1950 The many LP albums and CDs with Robert’s musical arrangements, and his collaboration with such illuminaries as Gracie Fields, Vera Lynn, Eileen Farrell, Tony Bennett, Lena Horne, Frank Sinatra, George Shearing, Joe Williams, and Dizzie Gillespie are testament to his versatility and great abilities as are the fine recordings with the Queen’s Hall Light Orchestra. For television, we need only mention the stirring concert march, Colditz, written in 1972 that was the theme for the BBC TV series, "Colditz,’ and the main title for "Secret Army.’ Melody Fair that was often used to introduce Robert’s television shows. Other TV series included "The Prisoner" 1967, and "The Champions" 1969. The opportunity to compose music for films was, I believe, the main factor that persuaded Robert to stay in the United Kingdom at the conclusion of World War II. A good decision when one realizes that he eventually penned the scores for over forty films including such memorable movies as "Spring in ParkLane" , "Maytime in Mayfair" , and "Captain Horatio Hornblower, R.N." .
Having been surrounded with such music in my formative years, it is only natural that Robert’s fine writings have resonated with me ever since. I readily understand why such notable composers such as André Previn, John Williams, Henry Mancini, Quincy Jones and many others have publicly acknowledged their musical indebtedness to the influences of Robert’s creative scores. During the late 1940’s through 1958, I would personally play the music of Robert Farnon as an instrumentalist in many ensembles including Her Majesty’s Armed Forced Bands; the BBC, and ITV [Wales] Orchestras. The reality that I would subsequently reside in Canada with the opportunity to conduct his music in North America and, furthermore, be favoured to regard Robert as a very dear friend, seems almost beyond belief.
The pleasure of working in Canada with many of Robert’s former musical players and colleagues such as violinists Frank Fusco, Samuel Hersenhoren, Berul Sugarman, and Albert Pratz, allowed me to share their admiration not only of Robert’s immense and versatile musical abilities but also of his personal warmth, his humour, and his friendship.
With the invaluable help of my good friend and neighbour, vibraphonist, Peter Appleyard, a plan was formulated to produce a concert that would give Robert’s musical colleagues, friends, and the Canadian general public an opportunity to pay tribute and to hear some of his masterworks. The Board of the Brantford Symphony Orchestra, Ontario, Canada, readily gave their approval, and arrangements were made by the Symphony to bring Robert to Canada to be a vital part of this well-deserved tribute to him. On Sunday, May 4, 1997, the seventy-eight piece ensemble with Jascha Milkis , concertmaster, and myself as conductor, presented our personal musical tribute to Robert at the Sanderson Centre for the Performing Arts at Brantford, Ontario. Compè re and host was Peter Appleyard, O.C.
The programme for this memorable occasion, entitled ‘The Genius of Robert Farnon,’ consisted entirely of Robert’s compositions and arrangements : Colditz March; Shenandoah; Prelude and Dance for Harmonica and Orchestra with Canadian Joseph Macerollo, accordion; How Beautiful is Night; "Manhattan Playboy," No. 3 of Three Impressions for Orchestra; À la claire Fontaine; Melody Fair; Gateway to the West; Farrago for Brass Quintet and Orchestra; Intermezzo for Harp and Strings with Julia Shaw, harp; The Very Thought of You with vocalist Carol Welsman, conducted by Skitch Henderson; and Twilight World with Peter Appleyard, vibraphone; Show Boat Selection; and Farnon Fantasy.
The concert was an unqualified success: a packed house in the 1200 seat Sanderson Performing Arts Centre; repeated standing ovations; and demands for, and receiving encores including State Occasion. Each time that Robert was brought on stage, there was an instantaneous outburst of applause from the capacity audience Among those in attendance were Robert’s son, Brian, from Calgary, Alberta; John Parry of Parry Music Inc., Florida; and Skitch Henderson, Music Director of the New York ‘Pops’ Orchestra, Carnegie Hall, New York. Regrettably, Oscar Peterson was unable to perform because of illness. Countless greetings were received—telephone calls, letters, facsimiles, telegrams—including greetings from André Previn, Oscar Peterson, George and Ellie Shearing, Marian McPartland and others. All present were invited to a reception backstage to meet Robert, special guests, national and civic dignitaries, and Orchestral and Board Members. In one of his communications to me, Robert stated: "It was one of the most memorable moments of my life. I was flabbergasted by the accolades that I received."
It is widely acknowledged that Canadian-born Robert Farnon is the greatest composer of light orchestral music in the world. Often overlooked, however, are the symphonic influences that are in evidence in such orchestral settings as À la claire Fontaine that Robert conducted and recorded with the London Philharmonic Orchestra; the Suite, Canadian Impressions, the Concert March, Colditz, the Suite, Captain Horatio Hornblower, R.N.; and Rhapsody for Violin and Orchestra.
Robert Farnon manifested a great love for his native country, Canada. Many of the Canadian public are familiar with Robert’s trumpet playing with the Toronto-based dance bands of the 1930’s; his trumpet playing [1937 though 1943] with the well-loved radio programme, "The Happy Gang" - which began as a Summer replacement show in 1937 and ran for twenty-two years - his work as Conductor of the Canadian Percy Faith Orchestra; his 1961 CBC TV programme, "Music Makers"; the 1969 television special, "The Music of Robert Farnon"; the 1969 concert with Vera Lynn at the Maple Leaf Gardens at Toronto; and the Christmas concert with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra in 1984. In addition, Robert also served as Conductor of the Canadian Band of the Allied Expeditionary Forces.
It is doubtful, however, if many of the Canadian public are conversant of the tremendous influence that Canada had upon Robert’s creative writings. Prelude and Dance for Harmonica and Orchestra was written for the Canadian harmonica virtuoso, Tommy Reilly; Pleasure of Your Company was written for Oscar Peterson; Saxophone Triparti was commissioned by the British Musicians’ Union and premiered by the Canadian saxophonist, Robert Burns; Gateway to the West, and Alcan Highway were influenced by Canadian locations; Shenandoah, written in 1959 for an album associated with melodies of the American West, depicts the arrival of a sailing ship at an East Coast port prior to its long journey Westward, while Lake of the Woods reflects a remote lake in Northern Ontario; À la claire Fontaine based on a French Canadian folk song, was recorded by Decca in 1955 as a compilation of Robert’s works entitled "Canadian Impressions"; Farrago for Brass Quintet and Orchestra was commissioned by the Canadian Brass; while Rhapsody for Violin and Orchestra was recorded by Canadian violinist, Steven Staryk (now available again on Vocalion CDLK4146); and Scherzando for Trumpet and Orchestra was recorded by the CBC Winnipeg Orchestra.
As a celebrated Member of Composers, Authors and Publishers Association of Canada, and the Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers of Canada, it was almost axiomatic that Robert should be honoured by the Guild of Canadian Film Composers at Toronto on October 24, 1997; and by the Society of Composers, Authors and the Music Publishers of Canada. Indeed, 1997 was an impressive eightieth year for Robert. Apart from his celebratory concerts with the Brantford Symphony Orchestra, May 4th and with the National Arts Centre Orchestra on October 30/31 and November 1st, it was during this period that he was commissioned to compose Concerto for Piano and Orchestra: Cascades to the Sea. This major work was completed in 1998 - the same title as the earlier orchestral work lost in 1944 - and has been broadcast both in Britain and the USA. It was issued as a commercial CD by the British recording company, Vocalion, in 2002. It was also in 1997 that Robert Farnon was finally awarded the Order of Canada.
From an early age Robert, although self-depreciating and modest about his more substantial compositions, innately recognized that he had the creative ability and technique to compose such major works. This is evidenced by the fact that by 1942 - at the twenty-five years of age - he had written two symphonies.
Symphony No. 1 in D flat Major, completed in 1940, was premiered by the Toronto Symphony Orchestra under Sir Ernest Macmillan on January 7, 1941 as ‘Symphonic Suite.’ Symphony No. 1 was later performed by the Philadelphia Orchestra under Eugene Ormandy. It is interesting to note that the earlier orchestral work, Cascades to the Sea - premiered on August 31, 1944 - along with the score of Symphony No. 1 were lost at sea in 1944 together with a shipment of Army Show music and equipment.
Symphony No. 2: "Ottawa in B Major," completed in 1942, was also premiered by the Toronto Symphony Orchestra under Sir Ernest Macmillan in 1943 on the CBC programme, ‘Concert Hour.’ Both symphonies were also performed by the Montreal Symphony Orchestra.
Symphony No.3: "Edinburgh," completed in early 2004 is dedicated to the City of Edinburgh; it was inspired after a visit to the Edinburgh Festival by Robert. It was first performed at the Usher Hall, Edinburgh, Scotland by the National Symphony Orchestra of Scotland, conducted by Iain Sutherland, on May 14, 2005. In a fitting tribute to the composer, the Orchestra included as encores Westminster Waltz and Portrait of a Flirt as Robert had died on April 23rd, exactly three weeks before this premiere.
On learning of Robert’s death, Peter Appleyard at a concert with his Quintet with the Kitchener Waterloo Symphony Orchestra, Ontario changed the programme to include Twilight World, In the Days of Our Love, and The Very Thought of You as a tribute to Robert. Westminster Waltz was included in "Salute to England" with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra on Sunday, May 29th, and "Sixtieth Anniversary of the End of World War II" with the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra on June 10/11, 2005. Both programmes were conducted by Bramwell Tovey.
The Concerto for Bassoon "Romancing the Phoenix", was written for American bassoon virtuoso Daniel Smith, who will premiere the work in Europe and North America.. Using an amplified bassoon backed by a big band incorporated within a full symphony orchestra, the three-movement composition is in jazz style, and was completed early in 2005.
The commissioning of the Wind Symphony: "The Gaels" in 2004 was spearheaded by Professor Darryl Bott, Assistant Director of Bands at Rutgers University, New Jersey, USA, and Chairman of the New Jersey State Band Association on behalf of the award-winning Honours Wind Symphony at Roxbury High School, New Jersey.
In several discussions with me about instrumentation, musical clefs, notation, and so on regarding this new multi-movement work, Robert was particularly enthusiastic about the use of the Celtic drums that play an important part in the ‘Finale’ of the Wind Symphony. The knowledge that Robert played percussion in the Toronto Symphony Junior Orchestra at the age of twelve, and that he was a drummer in his brother's band for three years clearly demonstrated his passion and continued interest in percussion. The first performance of the Wind Symphony, which Robert dedicated to me, is scheduled for late Spring 2006 at the Performing Arts Centre, Newark, New Jersey. It is of interest to note also that Robert once lived at Riverside, New Jersey, some seventy miles from the Performing Arts Centre, Newark. Plans are now underway for the North American publication and recording of this work.
Robert’s musical versatility is further evidenced by his compositions for winds. His Military Band compositions, as well as works adapted specially for bands. Une Vie de Matelot - specially written for the British National Brass Band Championships in 1975 - and Suite Mountbatten - began as a tribute to Lord Louis Mountbatten by Robert’s friend, Sir Vivian Dunn — are only two examples.
Douglas Field, former CBC producer and now Manager of The Intrada Brass, Oakville, Ontario, [Musical Director, Bramwell Gregson] told me that in the last years of his life Robert had given them great assistance in locating out-of-print scores and parts of his band works in the Intrada Brass’ project to record all of Robert’s music written for brass bands. In 2003, Robert sent a new arrangement of À la claire Fontaine as a gift for the Intrada Brass as well as arranging for the Library of the Royal Marines to forward State Occasion and Colditz March. These three works will be included in the tribute CD.
For my final concert with the Brantford Symphony Orchestra, Ontario, after a tenure of twenty-seven years as Music Director and Conductor, I gave much thought to the selection of the concluding works on the programme. I selected the Suite Captain Horatio Hornblower, R.N. as a dedication and tribute to Robert for his friendship and for the important part that he and his music has played in my life; and a movement of that Suite, "Lady Barbara", as a devotion and recognition of my wife, Barbara’s unswerving support throughout that period.
For all of Robert’s eminence, he still retained his wonderful generosity of spirit, his interest in others, and his modesty and humility. Many will testify to his reticence to interviews when facing the television cameras, his astonishment when faced with plaudits and acclamations, and his propensity to divert his well-deserved accolades on to others. I remember well his telephone call to me asking "Stanley, would it be all right if I dedicated the Wind Symphony to you?" It was almost as if I were doing Robert a favour!
Barbara and I will greatly miss the interchange of many facsimiles, telephone calls, and celebratory birthday and Christmas cards with Robert. I shall miss discussing particular interpretations of his compositions and arrangements, the specific instrumentation of some of his early and more recent works; his help in obtaining scores and instrumental parts for performances, his suggestions for programme notes, contrasting Canadian and European weather and politics along with the general musical scene in North America and Europe, and deliberating on the latest news of the English Premier Soccer League. It is so difficult to accept the fact that those contacts have now gone, and no longer will we hear his vibrant, sonorous, baritone voice saying, "Is that you, Lady Barbara? Is Stanley there?"
The original postcard that he sent us - later used as the cover photograph of his CD, "Lovers Love London" with the Royal Philharmonic Strings containing even more string orchestral gems - will be an important part of our Robert Farnon personal memorabilia and treasures. I have been privileged to have been a small part of the legacy and genius of Robert Farnon. It is my fervent hope that the true genius and musical importance of his music in all of its genres will be fully recognized especially in his beloved native homeland, Canada.
This article appeared in ‘Journal Into Melody’ September 2005.